Alexander's Bridge, by Willa Cather

Chapter 5

It was the afternoon of the day before Christmas. Mrs. Alexander had been driving about all the morning, leaving presents at the houses of her friends. She lunched alone, and as she rose from the table she spoke to the butler: “Thomas, I am going down to the kitchen now to see Norah. In half an hour you are to bring the greens up from the cellar and put them in the library. Mr. Alexander will be home at three to hang them himself. Don’t forget the stepladder, and plenty of tacks and string. You may bring the azaleas upstairs. Take the white one to Mr. Alexander’s study. Put the two pink ones in this room, and the red one in the drawing-room.”

A little before three o’clock Mrs. Alexander went into the library to see that everything was ready. She pulled the window shades high, for the weather was dark and stormy, and there was little light, even in the streets. A foot of snow had fallen during the morning, and the wide space over the river was thick with flying flakes that fell and wreathed the masses of floating ice. Winifred was standing by the window when she heard the front door open. She hurried to the hall as Alexander came stamping in, covered with snow. He kissed her joyfully and brushed away the snow that fell on her hair.

“I wish I had asked you to meet me at the office and walk home with me, Winifred. The Common is beautiful. The boys have swept the snow off the pond and are skating furiously. Did the cyclamens come?”

“An hour ago. What splendid ones! But aren’t you frightfully extravagant?”

“Not for Christmas-time. I’ll go upstairs and change my coat. I shall be down in a moment. Tell Thomas to get everything ready.”

When Alexander reappeared, he took his wife’s arm and went with her into the library. “When did the azaleas get here? Thomas has got the white one in my room.”

“I told him to put it there.”

“But, I say, it’s much the finest of the lot!”

“That’s why I had it put there. There is too much color in that room for a red one, you know.”

Bartley began to sort the greens. “It looks very splendid there, but I feel piggish to have it. However, we really spend more time there than anywhere else in the house. Will you hand me the holly?”

He climbed up the stepladder, which creaked under his weight, and began to twist the tough stems of the holly into the frame-work of the chandelier.

“I forgot to tell you that I had a letter from Wilson, this morning, explaining his telegram. He is coming on because an old uncle up in Vermont has conveniently died and left Wilson a little money — something like ten thousand. He’s coming on to settle up the estate. Won’t it be jolly to have him?”

“And how fine that he’s come into a little money. I can see him posting down State Street to the steamship offices. He will get a good many trips out of that ten thousand. What can have detained him? I expected him here for luncheon.”

“Those trains from Albany are always late. He’ll be along sometime this afternoon. And now, don’t you want to go upstairs and lie down for an hour? You’ve had a busy morning and I don’t want you to be tired to-night.”

After his wife went upstairs Alexander worked energetically at the greens for a few moments. Then, as he was cutting off a length of string, he sighed suddenly and sat down, staring out of the window at the snow. The animation died out of his face, but in his eyes there was a restless light, a look of apprehension and suspense. He kept clasping and unclasping his big hands as if he were trying to realize something. The clock ticked through the minutes of a half-hour and the afternoon outside began to thicken and darken turbidly. Alexander, since he first sat down, had not changed his position. He leaned forward, his hands between his knees, scarcely breathing, as if he were holding himself away from his surroundings, from the room, and from the very chair in which he sat, from everything except the wild eddies of snow above the river on which his eyes were fixed with feverish intentness, as if he were trying to project himself thither. When at last Lucius Wilson was announced, Alexander sprang eagerly to his feet and hurried to meet his old instructor.

“Hello, Wilson. What luck! Come into the library. We are to have a lot of people to dinner to-night, and Winifred’s lying down. You will excuse her, won’t you? And now what about yourself? Sit down and tell me everything.”

“I think I’d rather move about, if you don’t mind. I’ve been sitting in the train for a week, it seems to me.” Wilson stood before the fire with his hands behind him and looked about the room. “You HAVE been busy. Bartley, if I’d had my choice of all possible places in which to spend Christmas, your house would certainly be the place I’d have chosen. Happy people do a great deal for their friends. A house like this throws its warmth out. I felt it distinctly as I was coming through the Berkshires. I could scarcely believe that I was to see Mrs. Bartley again so soon.”

“Thank you, Wilson. She’ll be as glad to see you. Shall we have tea now? I’ll ring for Thomas to clear away this litter. Winifred says I always wreck the house when I try to do anything. Do you know, I am quite tired. Looks as if I were not used to work, doesn’t it?” Alexander laughed and dropped into a chair. “You know, I’m sailing the day after New Year’s.”

“Again? Why, you’ve been over twice since I was here in the spring, haven’t you?”

“Oh, I was in London about ten days in the summer. Went to escape the hot weather more than anything else. I shan’t be gone more than a month this time. Winifred and I have been up in Canada for most of the autumn. That Moorlock Bridge is on my back all the time. I never had so much trouble with a job before.” Alexander moved about restlessly and fell to poking the fire.

“Haven’t I seen in the papers that there is some trouble about a tidewater bridge of yours in New Jersey?”

“Oh, that doesn’t amount to anything. It’s held up by a steel strike. A bother, of course, but the sort of thing one is always having to put up with. But the Moorlock Bridge is a continual anxiety. You see, the truth is, we are having to build pretty well to the strain limit up there. They’ve crowded me too much on the cost. It’s all very well if everything goes well, but these estimates have never been used for anything of such length before. However, there’s nothing to be done. They hold me to the scale I’ve used in shorter bridges. The last thing a bridge commission cares about is the kind of bridge you build.”

When Bartley had finished dressing for dinner he went into his study, where he found his wife arranging flowers on his writing-table.

“These pink roses just came from Mrs. Hastings,” she said, smiling, “and I am sure she meant them for you.”

Bartley looked about with an air of satisfaction at the greens and the wreaths in the windows. “Have you a moment, Winifred? I have just now been thinking that this is our twelfth Christmas. Can you realize it?” He went up to the table and took her hands away from the flowers, drying them with his pocket handkerchief. “They’ve been awfully happy ones, all of them, haven’t they?” He took her in his arms and bent back, lifting her a little and giving her a long kiss. “You are happy, aren’t you Winifred? More than anything else in the world, I want you to be happy. Sometimes, of late, I’ve thought you looked as if you were troubled.”

“No; it’s only when you are troubled and harassed that I feel worried, Bartley. I wish you always seemed as you do to-night. But you don’t, always.” She looked earnestly and inquiringly into his eyes.

Alexander took her two hands from his shoulders and swung them back and forth in his own, laughing his big blond laugh.

“I’m growing older, my dear; that’s what you feel. Now, may I show you something? I meant to save them until tomorrow, but I want you to wear them to-night.” He took a little leather box out of his pocket and opened it. On the white velvet lay two long pendants of curiously worked gold, set with pearls. Winifred looked from the box to Bartley and exclaimed:—

“Where did you ever find such gold work, Bartley?”

“It’s old Flemish. Isn’t it fine?”

“They are the most beautiful things, dear. But, you know, I never wear earrings.”

“Yes, yes, I know. But I want you to wear them. I have always wanted you to. So few women can. There must be a good ear, to begin with, and a nose” — he waved his hand — “above reproach. Most women look silly in them. They go only with faces like yours — very, very proud, and just a little hard.”

Winifred laughed as she went over to the mirror and fitted the delicate springs to the lobes of her ears. “Oh, Bartley, that old foolishness about my being hard. It really hurts my feelings. But I must go down now. People are beginning to come.”

Bartley drew her arm about his neck and went to the door with her. “Not hard to me, Winifred,” he whispered. “Never, never hard to me.”

Left alone, he paced up and down his study. He was at home again, among all the dear familiar things that spoke to him of so many happy years. His house to-night would be full of charming people, who liked and admired him. Yet all the time, underneath his pleasure and hopefulness and satisfaction, he was conscious of the vibration of an unnatural excitement. Amid this light and warmth and friendliness, he sometimes started and shuddered, as if some one had stepped on his grave. Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the cannon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger. To-night it came upon him suddenly, as he was walking the floor, after his wife left him. It seemed impossible; he could not believe it. He glanced entreatingly at the door, as if to call her back. He heard voices in the hall below, and knew that he must go down. Going over to the window, he looked out at the lights across the river. How could this happen here, in his own house, among the things he loved? What was it that reached in out of the darkness and thrilled him? As he stood there he had a feeling that he would never escape. He shut his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold window glass, breathing in the chill that came through it. “That this,” he groaned, “that this should have happened to ME!”

On New Year’s day a thaw set in, and during the night torrents of rain fell. In the morning, the morning of Alexander’s departure for England, the river was streaked with fog and the rain drove hard against the windows of the breakfast-room. Alexander had finished his coffee and was pacing up and down. His wife sat at the table, watching him. She was pale and unnaturally calm. When Thomas brought the letters, Bartley sank into his chair and ran them over rapidly.

“Here’s a note from old Wilson. He’s safe back at his grind, and says he had a bully time. ‘The memory of Mrs. Bartley will make my whole winter fragrant.’ Just like him. He will go on getting measureless satisfaction out of you by his study fire. What a man he is for looking on at life!” Bartley sighed, pushed the letters back impatiently, and went over to the window. “This is a nasty sort of day to sail. I’ve a notion to call it off. Next week would be time enough.”

“That would only mean starting twice. It wouldn’t really help you out at all,” Mrs. Alexander spoke soothingly. “And you’d come back late for all your engagements.”

Bartley began jingling some loose coins in his pocket. “I wish things would let me rest. I’m tired of work, tired of people, tired of trailing about.” He looked out at the storm-beaten river.

Winifred came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. “That’s what you always say, poor Bartley! At bottom you really like all these things. Can’t you remember that?”

He put his arm about her. “All the same, life runs smoothly enough with some people, and with me it’s always a messy sort of patchwork. It’s like the song; peace is where I am not. How can you face it all with so much fortitude?”

She looked at him with that clear gaze which Wilson had so much admired, which he had felt implied such high confidence and fearless pride. “Oh, I faced that long ago, when you were on your first bridge, up at old Allway. I knew then that your paths were not to be paths of peace, but I decided that I wanted to follow them.”

Bartley and his wife stood silent for a long time; the fire crackled in the grate, the rain beat insistently upon the windows, and the sleepy Angora looked up at them curiously.

Presently Thomas made a discreet sound at the door. “Shall Edward bring down your trunks, sir?”

“Yes; they are ready. Tell him not to forget the big portfolio on the study table.”

Thomas withdrew, closing the door softly. Bartley turned away from his wife, still holding her hand. “It never gets any easier, Winifred.”

They both started at the sound of the carriage on the pavement outside. Alexander sat down and leaned his head on his hand. His wife bent over him. “Courage,” she said gayly. Bartley rose and rang the bell. Thomas brought him his hat and stick and ulster. At the sight of these, the supercilious Angora moved restlessly, quitted her red cushion by the fire, and came up, waving her tail in vexation at these ominous indications of change. Alexander stooped to stroke her, and then plunged into his coat and drew on his gloves. His wife held his stick, smiling. Bartley smiled too, and his eyes cleared. “I’ll work like the devil, Winifred, and be home again before you realize I’ve gone.” He kissed her quickly several times, hurried out of the front door into the rain, and waved to her from the carriage window as the driver was starting his melancholy, dripping black horses. Alexander sat with his hands clenched on his knees. As the carriage turned up the hill, he lifted one hand and brought it down violently. “This time” — he spoke aloud and through his set teeth — “this time I’m going to end it!”

On the afternoon of the third day out, Alexander was sitting well to the stern, on the windward side where the chairs were few, his rugs over him and the collar of his fur-lined coat turned up about his ears. The weather had so far been dark and raw. For two hours he had been watching the low, dirty sky and the beating of the heavy rain upon the iron-colored sea. There was a long, oily swell that made exercise laborious. The decks smelled of damp woolens, and the air was so humid that drops of moisture kept gathering upon his hair and mustache. He seldom moved except to brush them away. The great open spaces made him passive and the restlessness of the water quieted him. He intended during the voyage to decide upon a course of action, but he held all this away from him for the present and lay in a blessed gray oblivion. Deep down in him somewhere his resolution was weakening and strengthening, ebbing and flowing. The thing that perturbed him went on as steadily as his pulse, but he was almost unconscious of it. He was submerged in the vast impersonal grayness about him, and at intervals the sidelong roll of the boat measured off time like the ticking of a clock. He felt released from everything that troubled and perplexed him. It was as if he had tricked and outwitted torturing memories, had actually managed to get on board without them. He thought of nothing at all. If his mind now and again picked a face out of the grayness, it was Lucius Wilson’s, or the face of an old schoolmate, forgotten for years; or it was the slim outline of a favorite greyhound he used to hunt jack-rabbits with when he was a boy.

Toward six o’clock the wind rose and tugged at the tarpaulin and brought the swell higher. After dinner Alexander came back to the wet deck, piled his damp rugs over him again, and sat smoking, losing himself in the obliterating blackness and drowsing in the rush of the gale. Before he went below a few bright stars were pricked off between heavily moving masses of cloud.

The next morning was bright and mild, with a fresh breeze. Alexander felt the need of exercise even before he came out of his cabin. When he went on deck the sky was blue and blinding, with heavy whiffs of white cloud, smoke-colored at the edges, moving rapidly across it. The water was roughish, a cold, clear indigo breaking into whitecaps. Bartley walked for two hours, and then stretched himself in the sun until lunch-time.

In the afternoon he wrote a long letter to Winifred. Later, as he walked the deck through a splendid golden sunset, his spirits rose continually. It was agreeable to come to himself again after several days of numbness and torpor. He stayed out until the last tinge of violet had faded from the water. There was literally a taste of life on his lips as he sat down to dinner and ordered a bottle of champagne. He was late in finishing his dinner, and drank rather more wine than he had meant to. When he went above, the wind had risen and the deck was almost deserted. As he stepped out of the door a gale lifted his heavy fur coat about his shoulders. He fought his way up the deck with keen exhilaration. The moment he stepped, almost out of breath, behind the shelter of the stern, the wind was cut off, and he felt, like a rush of warm air, a sense of close and intimate companionship. He started back and tore his coat open as if something warm were actually clinging to him beneath it. He hurried up the deck and went into the saloon parlor, full of women who had retreated thither from the sharp wind. He threw himself upon them. He talked delightfully to the older ones and played accompaniments for the younger ones until the last sleepy girl had followed her mother below. Then he went into the smoking-room. He played bridge until two o’clock in the morning, and managed to lose a considerable sum of money without really noticing that he was doing so.

After the break of one fine day the weather was pretty consistently dull. When the low sky thinned a trifle, the pale white spot of a sun did no more than throw a bluish lustre on the water, giving it the dark brightness of newly cut lead. Through one after another of those gray days Alexander drowsed and mused, drinking in the grateful moisture. But the complete peace of the first part of the voyage was over. Sometimes he rose suddenly from his chair as if driven out, and paced the deck for hours. People noticed his propensity for walking in rough weather, and watched him curiously as he did his rounds. From his abstraction and the determined set of his jaw, they fancied he must be thinking about his bridge. Every one had heard of the new cantilever bridge in Canada.

But Alexander was not thinking about his work. After the fourth night out, when his will suddenly softened under his hands, he had been continually hammering away at himself. More and more often, when he first wakened in the morning or when he stepped into a warm place after being chilled on the deck, he felt a sudden painful delight at being nearer another shore. Sometimes when he was most despondent, when he thought himself worn out with this struggle, in a flash he was free of it and leaped into an overwhelming consciousness of himself. On the instant he felt that marvelous return of the impetuousness, the intense excitement, the increasing expectancy of youth.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30